REF-L-Circus-Radder-10.jpg

The Brattleboro Select Board approved an amended mask policy on Tuesday night that provides an exception for performers. Above, members of the New England Center for Circus Arts, in Brattleboro, put on a special performance for the residents at Thompson House Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in 2020.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Select Board approved an amended mask policy on Tuesday night that provides an exception for performers.

The issue was brought before the board two weeks ago by board member Jessica Gelter, who is also the executive director of Arts Alive, a nonprofit group based in Keene, N.H.

“I was hearing from both performing artists and a few venue organizers who were concerned that the mask mandate meant that their performers could not fulfil their jobs as performers,” said Gelter. “Because Brattleboro has such a rich arts economy and arts events, both drive downtown spending, as well as help us connect with one another ... it’s really important to support that industry in continuing to be able to host events.”

One way that can happen, she said, is to allow performers to be unmasked “in safe ways.”

“Having their performers be vaccinated or be tested within 24 to 48 hours of the performance,” said Gelter, as an example.

On Nov. 23, the Select Board approved by a vote of 4 to 1 a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, in response to rising case numbers in Vermont and the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 around the world.

“Establishments are not obligated to require performing artists to wear face coverings during live performances, provided those unmasked performing artists have shown proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have proof of a negative test result within 48 hours of the performance,” states the amended policy.

Town Manager Peter Elwell also added a paragraph pertaining to bars and restaurants in Brattleboro.

“Establishments that serve food and beverages are not obligated to require their customers to wear face coverings when said customers are in possession of food and/or beverages that they intend to consume onsite,” the policy states.

The Select Board approved the policy by a vote of 5-0 after some discussion by the board members.

“I’m wasn’t in favor of this rule to begin with,” said board member Tim Wessel, who was the lone no vote in November. “I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Wessel, who noted he is not an anti-vaxxer or anti-masker, said the science is continually changing when it comes to COVID-19.

“As far as we know, especially with the new variant ... the transmission is not cut down by vaccinations,” he said. “I’m curious if [including a vaccination requirement] ... is informed by science or just sort of our science of six months ago, what we understood about delta.”

According to the most recent information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and how easily omicron spreads compared to delta remains unknown. CDC expects that anyone with omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.”

However, notes the CDC, being vaccinated and boostered reduces the severity of the illness in people who are infected by the new variant.

The CDC also continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Wessel also expressed concern about putting an additional burden on local businesses who are being asked to police the behavior of their customers.

Gelter said she has been in communication with arts organizations around New England about this very issue.

“Having this exception in place really allows arts businesses in Brattleboro, that are already doing the right thing and have some security measures in place for COVID, to say to their donors and their supporters, it’s OK that our performers don’t have masks and you can still enjoy this, and we’re still following rules,” she said.

Board member Daniel Quipp said arts venues across the country are requiring customers to present proof of vaccination to attend events.

“I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable putting this exemption on there and saying nothing about, at the very least, encouraging those venues require proof of vaccination for their paying customers,” he said.

Quipp said he would love if venue organizers would take that step voluntarily, rather than being mandated by the town, but asked the board to consider adding it to the policy.

“Requiring vaccinations really limits how people can participate in the community,” said Gelter. “I’m not for it.”

Quipp also acknowledged it’s hard to enforce the policy, never mind a vaccination requirement.

“I would suggest we revisit this a month from now when we all have a chance to take stock of what happens after Christmas and where the town is, and we might need to be of sterner stuff to combat the public health crisis around us,” said board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin.

“I’d rather have heavy encouragement and science-based encouragement than a rule I think has increased polarization and has not increased actual adherence to a mask order,” said Wessel. “We are talking about a rule that is completely unenforced, which is ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, this is our rule ... but really we’re not going to do anything about it.’”

Wessel said he would rather the board stridently encourage vaccinations and masking, and not impose an unenforceable rule.

Quipp responded when the board revisits the rule in one month, “Maybe we’ll decide that we need to enforce it. If it’s a rule, maybe we’ll decide we need to put some resources into actually enforcing it, because it’s not working for our community.”

“This doesn’t have an enforcement clause in it,” acknowledged Elwell. “It doesn’t have a penalty that we impose for someone who is not complying with it. But that’s not to say that we are not doing any enforcement.”

But Elwell said his office gets “a fair number of complaints” about violations of the masking policy.

“We get those kinds of calls and when we do, we follow up with the people who run those businesses,” said Elwell. “We call up, talk to the manager and then we don’t get more complaints about that particular place. That tells me that people are responding to our enforcement, which is a very gently educational encouragement kind of enforcement.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.